On January 1st this year, Cuba celebrated the 50th anniversary of the revolution that toppled dictator-president Fulgencio Batista and ushered Fidel Castro to power. Five decades later, Cuba and Washington are still locked in a Cold War tussle. But the end of the Bush administration signals a chance for a thaw. Heck... after almost two decades reporting on Cuba, I'm suddenly feeling quite giddy.
President-elect Obama has already promised to reverse the restrictions on remittances and travel by Cuban-Americans imposed by President Bush. Obama has a golden opportunity to do much more and finally undo decades of failure that have benefited no-one while isolating the U.S. internationally. Says The Economist: "Once he is in office, the new president should... urge Congress to lift the embargo altogether. It is wrongheaded and ineffective… If the embargo goes and economic change is under way, everything else in Cuba might be up for debate in a way it has not been for the past half century. That would be a revolution indeed.”
I've long argued that Fidel was never serious about wanting the U.S. embargo lifted (it suited him nicely, not least in his self-appointed and vain role as David to Goliath). But with the ailing octogenarian now sidelined by illness, his brother Raúl Castro has been sending out overtures which suggest that Cuba, too, wants a thaw. Not least, Raúl has stated his desire to engage in direct talks with Obama. As a prelude, he's indicated Cuba's willingness to exchange imprisoned dissidents for the release of five convicted Cuban spies held in U.S. prisons.
Obama's own campaign website made a cogent argument for a fresh start that breaks the diplomatic deadlock: "George Bush's policy in the Americas has been negligent toward our friends, ineffective with our adversaries, disinterested in the challenges that matter in people's lives." A rapprochement with Cuba would send an unmistakable signal that the U.S. is ready again to embrace the world. In terms of reestablishing the international goodwill that Bush carelessly cast away, Cuba is like low hanging fruit. It helps that 33 Latin American and Caribbean heads of state recently issued a unanimous call for the U.S. to drop its failed embargo against Cuba. Meanwhile, a new report by the Brookings Institution also recommends a total reversal of U.S. policy, starting with lifting all restrictions on travel to Cuba.
At the very least, I'm hopeful that Obama may return things to the status of pre-Bush years, when 11 categories of traveler were permitted to visit Cuba without having to plead on bended knees. Obama has much of the authority required to tinker with travel restrictions. But actually lifting the travel ban is now the prerogative of Congress. Fortunately, the stars are aligning. Members of the House Democratic Leadership are currently working to pass legislation to repeal the travel ban early on in the new administration. Let's hope Obama doesn't revert to the ineffective gradualism of Bill Clinton, but makes clear to Congress that he will sign legislation to permit U.S. citizens to exercise their constitutional right to unrestricted travel.
To learn more about how you can assist in the effort to lift travel restrictions, visit the websites of the Cuba Study Group www.cubastudygroup.org  and Latin American Working Group www.lawg.org .